Aid & Big wall
08 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
The fifi hook is an integral part of aid climbing; used to quickly connect oneself to gear and so provide a third hand. It’s also invaluable for several tricks, such as tagging (used for roped solo climbing) and for retrievable abseils (a technique I daren’t cover on this site, only to say it involves a single rope, a fifi and a length of bungee cord…and balls as big as the Dru!). The fifi is also highly useful for technical climbing, alpinism and mixed climbing, although its use comes at a moral price.
This short article looks at the fifi and how best to use it.
A fifi hook is a question mark shaped tool, usually small and generally stamped out of a sheet of steel, or forged out of alloy. It has a large hole at the bottom for connecting to one’s harness and a smaller hole at the top for connecting a retrieval cord. Its basic function is to hook into gear and take one’s weight. It offers very little strength, and due to its open shape, requires a great deal of care when used.
This retrieval cord is used to pull the fifi off a placement easily, but many users don’t realise this, meaning they fiddle around with their fingers in order to pull it off. This is either a small loop or a single strand of cord tied at either end with a sliding double fisherman’s knot (3mm perlon). A loop means you can clip the fifi out of the way, but personally, I prefer a single strand about 10cm in length. For tagging a larger diameter cord need to be used (4-5mm) so this should be taken into account when buying, although for serious soloists the best option is to use Petzl’s Fifi as this is designed for tagging. I will save the subject of tagging for another time!
The fifi is tied or larks footed to the belay loop. The length of extension between the fifi and the harness is important, and most people make this far too short, believing that a shorter loop will get them higher on a piece when aiding. In fact, a longer loop (20-30cm) works best as it allows you to easily place and remove the fifi, and with the right technique, you can still get high. Also having some distance will often mean you can step higher, with a short loop simply pulling you too close to the gear.
A longer length of connection also means the hook can be easily tucked into your waist belt when not needed, important when using it for emergencies.
Personally, I use either 5 mm cord, 5mm Dyneema or a 30 cm 8mm sling for this job (the 8mm sling is larks footed to the fifi then the harness, and allows me to remove it when it’s no longer needed). For aid climbing, the fifi is tied directly to my belay loop with an overhand knot, with a single strand going to the fifi, where it’s attached with a sliding double fisherman’s knot. This creates a clean connection.
Most testing on aid pitches is done with my fifi so I always replace the thin webbing that comes with the Black Diamond fifi, as I’ve found this to wear and break easily.
One of the best ways to get two different lengths of fifi connection is to pass the fifi through the gear you want to hang from, and hook the fifi onto your belay loop, thereby halving its length.
For hard aid climbs, I will often add a second fifi to the cord where it is tied into the belay loop in case I do need a close connection. I will also sometimes clip a krab into the same loop for top stepping (Fifi’s don’t work so well upside down!)
Basically, a fifi hook is great for cheating, allowing you to quickly hook a piece of gear for a rest, giving a far more secure hang than hanging on the rope. This makes it ideal for French free (A0) climbing, and can be used to quickly test fixed gear by bounce testing (great on abseil descents).
The fifi comes in very handy for leashless climbing, allowing a quick rest in an emergency (considered A0). For this use, a short daisy chain with a fifi larks footed in the end. This is a slightly longer extension than usual but allows me to hook the axes spike when my arm is locked off on it. Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden both use a similar system, but with a skyhook (BD Cliffhanger) replacing the fifi, which allows them to hook flakes and edges more easily (a fifi is crap at this).
Although I’ve taken factor 2 falls onto my fifi and it’s stayed in one piece, I’ve seen plenty that look like bananas! The main danger is that you forget to secure yourself adequately, and instead end up hanging from your fifi. In 2000 I made a stormy ascent of Zenyatta Mandatta April, and one morning I climbed out off the portal edge to sort out the rack, which I did while hanging from my fifi 400 metres off the deck. It was only when I climbed back to the ledge, yarding on assorted slings and aiders, that I realised that I wasn’t tied in, and had in fact been trusting my life to a cheap bit of alloy.